War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 12

“You do remember what happened the last time we ‘moved’ here in the Kingdom, don’t you?” he inquired mildly.

“Of course I do.” Sahrdohr shrugged. “I read all the reports before I even left Trōfrōlantha. And I understand why we had to let things settle back down. But it’s been six years. Forgive me for pointing this out, but the original plan indicated we were rapidly approaching one of the critical cusp points, and it’s only gotten closer since. If we don’t do something soon, it’s going to be right on top of us!”

Varnaythus nodded. Sahrdohr had a valid point, although Varnaythus suspected his impatience had more to do with his current role here in Sothōfalas than with approaching “cusp points.” In his alter ego as Mahrahk Firearrow, Sahrdohr was a mid-level bureaucrat in the Exchequer. His position gave him access to all sorts of sensitive information but it was junior enough to keep him from attracting unwanted attention, and he did his job well. Unfortunately, it restricted him to a much less luxurious lifestyle than the one to which he had been accustomed in Kontovar and required him to be civil to and even take orders from men without so much as a trace of the magical ability which would have given them authority there. That had to be irksome enough by itself, yet his position inside the Palace itself meant he dared not employ the art at all. The King kept at least two or three magi at court permanently, and the magister would have been promptly detected if he’d done anything of the sort.

Varnaythus felt an unwilling ripple of sympathy for the younger man. Being forced to restrict his use of the art was hard for any wizard; renouncing it entirely, even if only temporarily, as Sahrdohr’s role had required him to do, was the next best thing to intolerable. All questions of power and ambition aside, there was a splendor to the art, a glory no wizard could truly resist. He had to reach out to it, for better or for worse, and Sahrdohr had been denied the chance to do that for over four years, ever since his own arrival here in Sothōfalas. No wonder he was feeling impatient.

“If you’ve read the reports, Malahk,” the older wizard said after a moment, “then you know I’m the only one of the senior agents originally assigned to this operation who’s still alive. Salgahn here and I did our jobs just about perfectly, and I still barely got away with my skin. Jerghar and Paratha were less fortunate, and Farrier is…still laboring under the Spider’s disapproval, shall we say?”

He grimaced at the thought of how the Twisted One had chosen to express Her unhappiness with Dahlaha Farrier. He’d never liked the woman, but seeing what had happened to her made him uncomfortably aware of what could happen to him. And that was with ShÄ«gÅ«’s decision to be “lenient” with the servant who’d failed Her.

“Worse,” he continued, “our last little escapade almost certainly warned the other side — Wencit, at the very least — that we’ve become far more interested in the Sothōii than we ever were before. Don’t you think it makes sense to proceed with a modicum of caution when all of that is true?”

“Caution, yes,” Sahrdohr agreed. “But we can’t afford to allow ourselves to be paralyzed, either. Especially not if we really are coming up on one of the cusp points.”

“And would you happen to know why it’s a cusp point?” Varnaythus asked mildly, extending his thumbs and tapping them together. He raised both eyebrows and cocked his head, and Sahrdohr looked back with a stubborn expression for several seconds. Then the younger man shrugged irritably.

“No,” he said shortly.

“Neither do I,” Varnaythus told him. It was Sahrdohr’s eyebrows’ turn to shoot upward and his eyes widened with surprise. Surprise that turned into skepticism almost instantly, Varnaythus noticed.

“I’m telling you the truth,” he said. “I realize that’s a novel approach, but we’re in rather an unusual situation here. They haven’t told me why They want us to do what They want us to do. All They’ve told me is what They want us to do. Now, to me that suggests this may be even more important than They’re prepared to admit even to us. Either that or They don’t know everything that’s involved here. Either way, there’s no way I’m going to rush in and blow this operation a second time. Is that understood?”

Sahrdohr gazed at him for at least a minute. Then he nodded slowly, and Varnaythus nodded back just a bit more emphatically. Both of them understood the subtext of what Varnaythus had just said. He’d avoided the Dark Gods’ displeasure because unlike his deceased associates, he’d carried out his own portion of the operation almost flawlessly. Perhaps even more importantly, he’d covered his backside by carefully sending very complete reports — including reports of the several times he’d warned those associates that things were slipping — back to Kontovar. Coupled with the years of successful service he’d given to Carnadosa, that had sufficed to protect him from divine wrath. It was unusual for one of the Dark Gods’ minions to survive the failure of a single mission remotely this important, however; it was unheard of for one of them to survive a second failure.

Varnaythus understood that, and he had no intention of failing, yet he wished passionately that his mistress had explained more about the reasons for this operation. What he’d said to Sahrdohr was nothing but the truth, and he hated operating blindly. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d had to do it, but he’d never liked it. It was difficult — and risky — to improvise or modify strategies when he didn’t even know what the ultimate motives of and reasons for his orders were.

The orders themselves were remarkably clear and unambiguous, however. That was something.

“All right,” he said after a moment, allowing his chair to come back upright. “Having just told you we’re not going to move until we’re ready, now I’m going to tell you that we are ready…almost.”

“We are?” Sahrdohr straightened with a jerk, and even Salgahn’s eyes narrowed speculatively.

“‘Almost,’ I said,” Varnaythus cautioned, raising one index finger. “There’s been a certain degree of…discussion back and forth, and I’ve convinced Them we need a narrower focus this time. One of the reasons we failed last time was that each of Them had His or Her own objectives and strategies. This time our Lady is in charge, Sahrdohr, and we’re going to avoid the kinds of distractions that got in the way last time.”

Both Sahrdohr and Salgahn nodded in understanding. The Dark Gods’ greatest weakness was their unwillingness to truly cooperate with one another. The same weakness afflicted their servants, but it was even worse among the gods themselves.

“That’s good to hear,” Sahrdohr said after a moment, and to his credit, he sounded as if he actually meant it. Which he might, Varnaythus reflected. The mortality rate among the Dark Gods’ servants who had actually faced Bahzell Bahnakson or Tomanāk’s other champions here on the Wind Plain had been effectively total. Sahrdohr could well be analyzing how his own position might be improved if something unfortunate happened to Varnaythus.

Of course, if whatever happens to me is truly unfortunate, it’ll probably happen to him, too. I wonder if he’s factoring that into his analysis?

“I think it’s good news, too,” he replied aloud. “But let’s not any of us start thinking this is going to be simple, because it’s not.”

“If it were going to be simple, they wouldn’t need us,” Sahrdohr said with a grin which made him look even younger.

“A reassuring thought, I’m sure,” Varnaythus said dryly, and Salgahn surprised him with a chuckle.

“All right,” the elder wizard continued. “We’ve been ‘authorized’ to assassinate Bahzell and Tellian ourselves if we can find a way to do it.” He rolled his eyes, and both of his companions grimaced. The Dark Gods had tried that approach more than once now…with uniformly disastrous results for their mortal instruments. None of the present trio were in favor of encountering those same results in person.

“Obviously,” he continued, “there are limits to how directly we can approach that sort of thing. I’m, ah…doing my best to encourage our good friend Arthnar to organize an attempt, and he’s certainly got more than enough motivation, given what their canal projects are going to do to his own arrangements. Unfortunately, he’s not an idiot, either, so I don’t know how successful I’ll be in getting him to move.” He shrugged. “I think we can probably get him to at least see what a few anonymously hired mercenaries can accomplish, but it would be foolish to expect a high chance of success out of that sort of attempt.”

“I can understand his reluctance,” Sahrdohr said drily. “On the other hand, what about an attempt on Bahnak or Kilthandahknarthas? Killing either of them would probably derail their damned project, as well, wouldn’t it? I’ll admit they could probably survive better without the dwarf than without Bahnak, even if Kilthan was the one who got Silver Cavern and Dwarvenhame to put their weight behind Bahnak in the first place. But losing him would still have to be a major blow. And Bahnak, now…he’s the glue holding this entire hradani ‘Confederation’ together, and there have to be enough Bloody Swords who’d love to see him dead.”

Varnaythus regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, then glanced at Salgahn.

“Would you care to undertake either of those assignments?” he asked the assassin, and Salgahn snorted harshly.